The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
We all wish no one had to win. Of course we do. In a just world, these two teams would combine to form a pure white dove made of energy, which would fly across the land, fields greening in its wake. But they can’t (probably, depending on Xavi’s passing). Someone has to win this, and it won’t be Cesc Fabregas’s femur. Savagery is afoot, and if you’re using the word “dilly-dallying,” you’re dilly-dallying already. Follow along for an account of the delicate war, coming to you live from somewhere near a TV that’s showing the same feed of the game you’re already watching. The action starts NOW.
I’m Not Getting Bogged Down in a Lot of Preamble. Because you know the score, and this match should be florid enough without my help. Your Team Sheets of Manly Terseness:
Arsenal: Almunia, Sagna, Vermaelen, Silvestre, Clichy, Denilson, Diaby, Walcott, Nasri, Rosicky, Bendtner.
Subs: Fabianski, Eduardo, Eboue, Traore, Merida, Eastmond, Campbell.
Barcelona: Valdes, Dani Alves, Marquez, Milito, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Keita, Pedro, Bojan, Messi.
Subs: Pinto, Iniesta, Henry, Maxwell, Toure Yaya, Fontas, Jeffren.
There. Now let’s do this.
Or, Okay, Fine, Have Some Analysis, Whatever. I was thinking about putting together a playlist to signify the spirit of the match. Obviously, it would be made up entirely of Felt songs. I knew “Dismantled King Is Off The Throne” would be on it, for Arsenal’s injury list, as well as “I Will Die With My Head In Flames,” for Ray Hudson watching at home. Also, “Down But Not Yet Out” seemed like a shoo-in. But then I started thinking about “Dance of Deliverance,” “The World Is Soft As Lace,” “Voyage To Illumination,” and “Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow,” and I realized it would never end, never, you could just keep adding Felt songs, they’d pile up like clouds and go on piling, songs that hadn’t even been written yet would come spiralling out of the sky and alighting atop the playlist, and you’d listen and listen and one day you’d look up and realize you’d grown old. And that was when you’d remember that Sol Campbell was in the stadium.
Good Omen For Arsenal. The referee likes them, or something. Also: Messi appears to have been hosed down before the match. I don’t know what that means.
1 min. And we’re off. Barcelona stroke it around coolly. Almunia, in what can only be taken as a portent, is the first Arsenal player to touch the ball.
3 min. Messi crosses ever so gently from the left. Xavi gets to the ball, but it drubbles harmlessly away. The match seems to be taking place in three feet of water, so far.
4 min. Drubbles wasn’t a typo, incidentally.
5 min. Milito drubbles Walcott to the turf. Arsenal win the free kick, but after some meaningless drubbling, the ball sloshes back to Milito, who flups away with it.
7 min. Diaby fouls Xavi, who is temporarily in the most pain he has ever experienced in his life.
8 min. Arsenal manage a little miniature candied kind of break down the left, but Alves gets mixed in. As is usual when Alves gets mixed in, the play ends with Alves sitting atop someone looking innocent—in this case Bendtner, who looks guilty.
9 min. Bojan plays a decent cross along the ground for Pedro on the edge of the area, but Pedro badly whiffs the shot and sends it wide to the left of the goal. Pedro shakes his head, as do we all.
10 min. A real chance for Messi! He takes the ball in the middle of the area, drubbles his way into some space (it was drubbling, but it was artful drubbling), and whaps the ball at the top of the goal. It goes over. Just.
13 min. Official Run of Play Match Stat: Possession so far: Barcelona 137%, Arsenal 4%.
14 min. Busquets breaks away down the left. He tries to find Bojan in the middle, but Vermaelen reaches the cross and “gets rid of it,” as they say in the mafia.
16 min. Nasri is shaken up after a hard challenge from Milito, who’s obviously heard that Arsenal don’t like it up in ’em. Arsenal’s injured list is currently applying for official Town status under UK common law.
17 min. GOAL – ARSENAL! (Bendtner!!!! 17′)
17 min. A tenacious goal from the Gunners. Diaby breaks through the entire Barcelona defense and plays the ball to Bendtner, who’s one on one with Valdes. Valdes stuffs the shot, but goes to ground in the process, allowing Bendtner to sort of huff onto the rebound and crack it into the net.
20 min GOAL – BARCELONA!! (Messi, obvs. 20).
20 min. Arsenal followed up their goal with another quick break. Walcott was free, but the Barcelona defense managed to break up the pass. Barça raced to the other end; Silvestre blocked Messi’s pass into the area, but the ball came right back to Messi, who experienced a moment of supreme tranquility as time came to a standstill, the universe aligned, and as the ball came gently to rest at his feet, he was able to swing his leg at the perfect angle to send it sailing past Almunia into the net. At which point time restarted, the stars burst overhead, a choir of angels started singing, and for Leo Messi, it went on being Tuesday.
23 min. Denilson makes a mess of a cross on the left in a way that suggests he knew I was about to point out that Barça were now back to winning on away goals. Arsenal wins the cross, but nothing comes from nothing, as Lady Gaga likes to say.
26 min. Andy Gray points out that Messi is the only Barcelona player to attempt a shot tonight. It’s not entirely true—Xavi had one, kind of—but it feels about right.
28 min. Barcelona have settled into a period of oceanic calm, allowing the ball to glide frictionlessly between them in the shape of a slowly rotating square that covers the entire midfield. Then, Vermaelen just up and knocks the crap out of Bojan.
29 min. Walcott darts away with the ball, but somebody—Busquets? surely not—just up and knocks the crap out of him. The dove of pure energy is looking further and further away, and not less so as Denilson is hit with a yellow card following a tedious Messi flop.
31 min. Alves does nothing with the ensuing free kick. Arsenal manage a breakaway, but Rosicky, who isn’t having a good night, sidles up to Barça and invites them to take the ball back. They take it.
34 min. Nasri takes down Xavi. It’s the heavyweight fight we’d all pay to see. Cooler heads, alas, prevail.
35 min. Charging down the right, Dani Alves plays a dangerous diagonal cross to Bojan in the middle of the area, but the lit match is quickly snuffed out.
36 min GOAL – BARCELONA (Messi, shock gasp disbelief, 36 min)!!!.
38 min. And the giant hook begins working its way across the talent-show stage toward Arsenal. Abidal gets the ball into the area on a bobbles-and-wishes basis. It falls for Pedro, who has his back to the goal. Either by dumb luck or sublime skill, he side-foots it to a streaking Messi, who knocks it in over a diving Almunia to take his personal goal tally to it might as well be ten million.
41 min GOAL – BARCELONA (Messi, yawn, 41′)!!!
41 min. A sensational goal, and with that, the wheel of fortune unceremoniously dumps Arsenal off. Playing a daringly (if that’s the word) high back line, Arsenal’s defense lets Messi slip through to take Almunia on one-on-one. Almunia plants himself like a Rodin sculpture or, I don’t know, Eddie Belfour, and Messi, beams of light shining down on him through the parting clouds, chips it elegantly over him for the 3-1 lead.
Halftime. Everyone seems to feel that there’s a fundamental affinity between the philosophies of these two teams, but sometimes all that seems to mean is that Barcelona have already solved the jigsaw puzzle at which Arsenal are slavishly laboring. There’s nothing surprising about this score, in other words, and it’s hard to believe that Arsenal, missing giant chunks of their usual teamsheet, are going to manage another two-goal comeback in the second half. I’m getting a snack. We shall see.
Please discuss. Is Messi better than Zidane in his prime? I say no, but it’s alarming how quickly the proposition is starting to seem reasonable. It’s a meaningless comparison, of course, etc. Anyway, after only intermittently figuring in the match at the Emirates last week, the kid had an extremely good first half.
45 min. And we’re back. I ate a number of Pizzeria Pretzel Combos during the break. If I start to taper off, call an ambulance.
46 min. The ball rolling in diagonal patterns, no one doing much with it, etc. The announcer points out that Arsenal “will be looking for a better souvenir from their trip than the goal for Bendtner.” Let’s hope Wenger knows a good t-shirt stand, then.
48 min. Alves [edit: sorry, it was Bojan] plays an absolutely ruthless diagonal cross along the ground for Messi in the center of the area. Almunia gets there first, and looks around like he can’t believe it.
49 min. Alves chases Denilson, trying to foul him. Denilson won’t be fouled, but Alves refuses to give up, and at last, his dream is realized. You’re not likely to come in between Alves and a foul once he picks up the scent.
53 min. Pedro, planted in the right side of the area, clicks the ball to Bojan, who tries a roundhouse strike. The ball flies over the goal. By the way, the Official Run of Play Match Stat Tracker is telling me that Arsenal’s share of position has gone up to 14%. Sadly, Barcelona’s has also gone up, to 179%.
55 min. I forgot to mention that Maxwell came on for Abidal a couple of minutes ago. Now Toure is on for Bojan. Carry on.
58 min. Arsenal spend two straight minutes passing the ball around just like Barça. Messi remaining undeceived, he doesn’t materialize at the end of the attack. Stymied, Almunia eventually kicks the ball 500 yards out of bounds.
59 min BLARGH! Criminy, Arsenal nearly score. Diaby gets the ball to Bendtner in an interesting space near the goal, but Milito slides in to take it away from him. Had that been a goal, oh my.
60 min. Andy Gray points out that had Messi been in Bendtner’s place, he would have scored. It’s probably true. But then, had Bendtner been in Messi’s place, he probably wouldn’t have scored, so what are you trying to prove?
63 min. Eboue comes on for Silvestre. Somewhere, someone points out that Eboue has really come a long way since he was booed by his own fans at the Emirates.
66 min. Eboue is held back by Busquets and receives a yellow card, confusingly. Somewhere, someone points out that he’s really come a long way since he was booed by his own fans at the Emirates.
68 min. One Arsenal goal could bring things roaring to life. It doesn’t come through Rosicky, who, picked out by Diaby on the left edge of the area, whaps the ball somewhere toward the United States. Permanent extenuating circumstances and all, Rosicky is not having a good night.
70 min. Things have gotten so quiet that I’m stuck trying to figure out how to vary the joke about how Barça have had more than 100% of possession so that it would be funny a third time. “But it wasn’t funny the second time,” I hear you saying. I hear you saying it because this match has gotten quiet.
72 min. Gosh! As I’m typing that last bit, Clichy spins a sharp, sharp cross to Bendtner, who squares himself up and…slams the ball off the post. And turns out to have been offside. Arsenal take Rosicky off for Eduardo.
74 min. “It’s just rather drifted, the second half,” Andy Gray begins. Maybe I’ll just quote Andy Gray from this point forward. He’s right that Barcelona’s defensive presence probably owes something to their collapse at the Emirates last week. Also that Keita is playing largely on the left.
75 min. Clichy brilliantly wins the ball from Alves, fiercely takes it down Barcelona’s throat, then rather comically does nothing with the shot.
79 min. Oh, hey, hi. Forgot I was doing this for a couple of minutes. Also, Andy Gray hasn’t been saying anything.
80 min. Pedro manages a shot. It goes four feet to the left. I really like Pedro, but tonight almost everything he’s done has been four feet to the left. The massive exception was the nifty side-foot flick for Messi’s third, of course, but there I think the ball simply got caught in Messi’s gravitational field and came to him in obedience to Newton.
82 min. Bendtner scores! Sadly, he’s 47 yards offside at the time.
83 min. Felt songs that capture the general lassitude of this ongoing second half: “Sandman’s On The Rise Again,” “Something Sends Me To Sleep,” “Trails Of Colour Dissolve,” etc.
85 min. Pedro comes off for Iniesta, who needs the run-out for his post-injury fitness. Pedro leaves the pitch at an excruciating stroll, trying to milk the clock, with the result that he moves at the exactly the pace Barça have been playing for the last 10 minutes.
87 min GOAL – BARCELONA (Messi, Messi, Messi, Messi, Messi, repeat till page is full, printer, &c.)!!!!
87 min. Almunia actually managed to stop his first try. But the ball rolled back to Messi, and as Almunia lay slumped across the goal like a drunkard at the foot of the stairs, Messi paused over the ball, calculated for a careful second, and then drilled it in from about a four-degree angle.
90 min. Into stoppage time. Andy’s teeing up the Barça-Inter storylines (the Milito brothers! Mourinho’s Catalan connections! Ibra/Eto’o! Etc.!), and the players are just trotting out the clock.
Full Time. And we finish Messi 4 – 1 Bendtner, and even that flatters the visitors a bit. Consolation for Arsenal fans: the team that played tonight, lacking Fabregas, Gallas, Arshavin, Van Persie, et. al, wasn’t so much “Arsenal” as it was “some players in Arsenal kits who were never meant to be on the field at the same time.” That said, if the “agg.” in “6-3 agg.” is the noise you want to make, it’s understandable. For Barça, there awaits what could be a really good tie against Inter. The press will say “Special One” a lot, and sometimes, wink wink, they’ll be referring to Messi. I kind of can’t wait.
Also, not to avoid the point just because it’s obvious. Barcelona were really good tonight; even in the phases where it looked like they were using the ball as a scientific instrument to help them scan the field for historical remains, they were doing it for a good reason. And Messi was superb, even if, as Alan points out in the comments, the Arsenal defense’s sustained impersonation of a torn parachute made it a bit easy for him at times. I can’t see Inter stopping them, though I’m usually wrong about that stuff. In any case, thanks for sticking around for those last gray 20 minutes, and thanks for reading!
by Brian Phillips · April 6, 2010